At Large: A trip we all should take, each in his own way

Two of the children have driven back and forth across the country. A third has driven back and forth across the West. They all agree that the land is unimaginably vast, both lovely and in places unloved, and that the people are friendly.

Frighteningly for her parents, one of the three, the girl, applied an unscientific test to the friendliness question. She and her companion, nearly out of gas at night in Nevada on their way to Vegas, walked along the line of big rigs parked in a turnout, asking for help. They wanted a ride to the nearest gas station, which was about 30 miles away. They found an older guy, who offered generously to haul their car up on the back of his rig and drive the girls and the car to civilization, which he did. We have nominated this fellow for sainthood.

In what I hope is a new trend away from memoirs written by uninteresting, self-interested people — doesn’t any editor ever say to these blurters, “Keep all this to yourself”? — there is a revived interest in sharply observed travel books by good writers about what they see and hear as they land-cruise the U.S. The most recent is Driving Home, by Jonathan Raban, a Brit who immigrated to the Pacific Northwest. He’s also written travel stories about sailing trips he’s made. His Passage to Juneau, about a cruise he made north through the inside passage to Alaska, is eye opening.

Chronologically, this brand of keen-eyed American travel writing has a long, but spotty, history. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was an early entry. Charles Dickens, in the U.S. on a lecture tour and ever the sharp-eyed observer, had a lot to say. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley is the entry most of us remember. A few years ago, Bernard Henri-Levy, a French intellectual, managed somehow to endure the American experience and find common ground with the plebes in American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. BHL’s book (he’s known in some French circles by his initials alone) hasn’t held its place the way Tocqueville’s did, or Steinbeck’s.

My father, known as DAD in one small circle, moved here just before he died. He didn’t want to move anywhere. When the movers came to clean out the old house where I had lived with him and my mother from age 5 to age 18, he refused to get out of his favorite chair. The rest of the house was all but empty, and the moving van all but full. The movers stood next to dad ready to carry him and the chair out the door. He gave up.

“Bah,” he said. “Take it.”

In particular, he did not want to move to Martha’s Vineyard. He was cross that his constitutionally guaranteed itinerancy would be interfered with. He knew that coming and going would depend on reservations and boatline schedules, and paying money. He wanted no part of any of that.

“I like to get in my automobile,” he said to me repeatedly, “and go where I want to go, when I want to go.”

It was not a matter of political or economic policy for my dad. It was freedom itself that was at stake. Perhaps it was the remembered, or even the imagined, experience of freedom. By the time he moved, my father did not drive anymore, and it had been a while since he had taken to the open road to see the USA, or even the old neighborhood, in one of his various Chevrolets or Nash Ramblers.

Still, I sympathize. Perhaps you remember “Route 66,” the CBS TV show. In my daydreams, I see Marty Milner — or, with luck, me — at the wheel of that 1960 ‘vette, with George Maharis — or rather, Moll — in the right hand seat. Marty peeled out into traffic and sped on down the Main Street of America, a Depression era dream come true.

By the way, Marty’s still clinging to the open road. “Return to the Road with Marty Milner” is available as a double cassette for $29.95. It’s 156 minutes of Marty, alas without George, revisiting favorite stops along the way. Allowing for the way of all flesh, Marty looks okay.

The web site promotion for the video describes it this way:

“It’s you and Martin Milner heading down The Mother Road in a 1960 Corvette, as he ventures out to see how America has changed since he criss-crossed the country while starring in the CBS television series ‘Route 66′ in the early 1960′s. ‘Return to the Road’ profiles the people of the road like never before … you’ll meet the countless unique characters that make Route 66 what it is. Along with Martin Milner, you’ll discover that their history, in their own words, is the story of roadside America itself.”

Having read his book, it’s not the story BHL discovered, nor DAD. Marty’s experience of Route 66 ran heavily to beautiful, lonely waitresses, murder plots, and exciting jobs to be had for the asking. I hope my father had other things in mind when he yearned for the open road. Still, wouldn’t he — wouldn’t any one of us? — have loved spinning along, top down, 2,448 miles through eight states, three time zones, from Chicago to Santa Monica?

America has changed, Marty has changed, my dad is dead without ever having traveled Will Rogers’ Highway. Sadly, it’s possible that those of us left here, facing our worrisome futures, forced nowadays to appeal to the Steamship Authority to find out if we are qualified Islanders or not, may just have to settle for the “countless unique characters” who are our friends and neighbors.